[March 21, 2020] Sabbatical update: For obvious reasons, I am home, and not in Africa. Thanks to my wife who booked my return journey from Windhoek to Boston. Stay tuned for a return to normalcy. Meanwhile, #QuarantineLife.

Tuesday, February 26, 2019

Let's 'open up our libel laws': I'm with Thomas

There's been a blustering rash of hand-wringing in journalism and First Amendment circles over the recent concurrence to cert. denial by Justice Thomas in McKee v. Bill Cosby (SCOTUSblog).  The case would have asked when a victim of sexual assault becomes a limited-purpose public figure after publicizing her allegation.  Based on First Amendment doctrine dating to the 1960s, famously including New York Times Co. v. Sullivan (U.S. 1964) (Oyez), a limited-purpose public figure must prove actual malice to prevail in a defamation claim.  That's very hard to do.  The First Circuit affirmed dismissal in favor of Cosby. 

"Actual malice"—ill named, as it does not have to do with anger or ill will, which is "common law malice"—is akin to the recklessness standard of tort law.  In a defamation context, "actual malice" is said to mean "knowledge of falsity or reckless disregard as to truth or falsity."  Supreme Court precedents late in the civil rights era amped up "reckless disregard" so much that for many years, actual malice seemed to be a nearly "fatal in fact" test.

Based only on casual observation, I posit that actual malice's rigor has been weakening in recent years.  Courts have begun to recognize the need to fine tune the balance between reputational and speech rights.  Meanwhile, "actual malice" has had a rough go in the world, even among our fellow human rights-loving western democracies.  Actual malice has been largely rejected as a functional standard for its insufficient protection of reputation as a human right countervailing the freedom of expression.  (My colleague Prof. Kyu Ho Youm paints a different picture.  I deeply admire Prof. Youm, a dear friend, and his work, which I have assigned students to read.  But I sharply disagree with his conclusion on this point.)

In his concurring opinion in McKee, Thomas challenged the constitutional imperative of the actual malice standard, which is so much higher than negligence and strict liability.  His argument was not so narrow, however.  Broadly, he proposed that the Court reconsider the fundamental premise that the the federal Constitution, through the First Amendment, should reshape state tort law, as the Court held it did in the civil rights-era cases.  Thomas is a champion of textualism and originalism, and it must be admitted that the Court's First Amendment doctrine from the latter-20th century is on thin ice in those schools of constitutional interpretation.

This blog, any blog, is far from an adequate venue to tackle this question.  I just want to do my part to raise consciousness of Thomas's proposition, and to dare to say, I agree.  For many years now, I have harbored a deep suspicion of Sullivan and progeny.  In my academic circles, especially in the free speech and civil liberties crowd, I have felt something like a church deacon harboring a dark secret.  No longer; I confess:

Actual malice swung the pendulum way too far in favor of defendants.  I get why, and I appreciate the good intentions.  Sullivan arose against the tragic reality of the Jim Crow South and the potential national crisis precipitated by desegregation.  But even Anthony Lewis, in his definitive book on Sullivan, Make No Law, recognized that the Court's federalization and constitutionalization of state defamation law had the ill effect of freezing the process of common law evolution.  As a result, we have been deprived of the opportunity to experiment with fair and equitable policy alternatives, such as media corrections as a remedy.

I'm not arguing to "open up our libel laws," quite as President Trump proposed.  But I'm with Justice Thomas.  Sullivan is not holy writ.

Monday, February 25, 2019

Beyond anthropomorphism: Research posits post-humanist animal rights

Tomorrow the UMass Law Review will ceremoniously launch its volume 14.  Included therein is a deep, thought-provoking work on animal rights and welfare by Barnaby McLaughlin, '19, himself a teacher in the English Department at Rhode Island College.  The paper, "A Conspiracy of Life: A Posthumanist Critique of Appoaches to Animal Rights in the Law," is available online from the law review.  I'm proud to say I was a reader on this project, though it was decidedly one of those I-got-more-than-I-gave scenarios.  I'll take my Ph.D now, please.  Here is the abstract.

Near the end of his life, Jacques Derrida, one of the most influential philosophers of the twentieth century, turned his attention from the traditional focus of philosophy, humans and humanity, to an emerging field of philosophical concern, animals. Interestingly, Derrida claimed in an address entitled The Animal That Therefore I Am that, 

since I began writing, in fact, I believe I have dedicated [my work] to the question of the living and of the living animal. For me that will always have been the most important and decisive question. I have addressed it a thousand times, either directly or obliquely, by means of readings of all the philosophers I have taken an interest in. . . .

Derrida’s insistence that the question of the animal has always been the focus of his work reflects an interesting turn in philosophy at the end of the twentieth century, where the primacy of the human was rightfully being challenged, and the lives of animals were being considered on their own terms. Increasingly, the shift in focus from the primacy of the human to a more thoughtful consideration of animals has moved outside of just philosophy into other academic fields. These developments have been reflected in the emerging interdisciplinary field of posthumanism. Posthumanism, inclusive of all disciplines, seeks to shed the legacy of liberal humanism and the primacy of the human and instead consider all the interests of those that the human shares the world with (including animals, plants, technology, et cetera). Curiously however, while posthumanism has had an impact in most disciplines, outside of a few scholars, it is absent in the legal field (both in academia and in practice). Where the status of animals in the law has been challenged, it has largely been done through arguments derived from the legacy of liberal humanism. The two most significant challenges to the status of animals in the law have been mounted by the Nonhuman Rights Project in the United States, and the Great Ape Project, which has primarily been successful in New Zealand and Spain. Both projects have sought to expand legal rights to hominids, though each has adopted different strategies. The Nonhuman Rights Project has sought to use arguments within existing legal paradigms to force the courts to recognize chimpanzees as “persons,” whereas the Great Ape project has intentionally avoided court (for fear of setting unfavorable precedents) and favored pressing change through legislation. Ultimately however, both projects are thoroughly rooted in liberal humanism and advance their arguments through proximity claims—the idea that certain animals, in these cases, apes, deserve legal consideration because of their similarity to humans.

This paper is an interdisciplinary comparative analysis of the Nonhuman Rights Project’s failures in the United States and the Great Ape Project’s success in New Zealand. The success of the legislative approach of the Great Ape Project demonstrates the need to approach these arguments outside of the courtroom to avoid hostile judges, philosophical legacies, and archaic precedents. However, the Great Ape Project does not go far enough in expanding the rights of other beings as it relies on emphasizing similarities with humans as the sole reason for extending rights, leaving other beings, even higher order mammals like dolphins, without inclusion— and a real possibility that any such inclusion would forever be cut off. Therefore, this paper proposes the need for a posthumanist foundation for pursuing the rights of other beings through legislative means.

Sunday, February 24, 2019

UMass Law prof learns immigration law in action

Prof. Farber
My UMass Law colleague Professor Hillary Farber is "Blogging from the Border" this semester, as she works for the Florence Immigrant and Refugee Rights Project in Arizona.  As she explained in her initial post, she went to Arizona with no particular expertise in immigration law, but wanted "to bring humanity to this migration struggle."  You can follow her on this adventure via WordPress


The Florence Project accepts attorney volunteers to represent detained immigrants in removal proceedings and to work on matters including cancellation of removal for legal permanent residents, citizenship claims, adjustment of status for refugees, asylum, and special immigrant juvenile status for abused, abandoned, or neglected children.  Learn more at the Pro Bono Program page of the project website.


Wednesday, February 20, 2019

Remembering 'very unique,' 'extremely historic,' pre- post-literate politics

Comedic media have recently lampooned with delight the President's sing-song description of litigation over the "national emergency" at the border.  (My favorites are Trevor Noah's "Guitar Hero" take and Stephen Colbert's "Torah reading."  Jake Tapper told Colbert aptly that Trump's description might actually prove correct.)  Then Bernie Sanders entered the race and admonished media that if his ideas were once fringe, they are no more.  Access to higher education always has been a key part of his platform.

This confluence of events made me nostalgic for the quixotic character of the savant President Bartlett of The West Wing (1999-2006).  To be clear, this is not a political statement: I'm not condemning Trump, nor endorsing Bernie, nor, least of all, saying anything about the politics of Martin Sheen, Rob Lowe, and Allison Janney.  I just wanted for a moment to set politics aside and revel in the appeal of a President who appreciates good writing and the power of language.  So I looked up this video introduction to West Wing season 2, episode 9, "Galileo V," aired November 29, 2000—ten months before September 11.  O simpler times and innocent idealism.


Hat tip to Kayla Venckauskas, UMass Law '19—editor-in-chief of the UMass Law Review, 2018 Rappaport Fellow, ALDF scholarship winner, and survivor extraordinaire of my 1L Torts class—for reminding me of this gem.  (If any of my media law colleagues still want to jump into this year's Law and Media Symposium on March 28, get in touch ASAP, and I'll do my best to hook you up.)

Monday, February 18, 2019

International arbitration, U.S. common law collide in skilled student note

I have been remiss not to mention earlier an incisive work on arbitration law by Chad Yates, '19. "Manifest Disregard in International Commercial Arbitration: Whether Manifest Disregard Holds, However Good, Bad, or Ugly" is available online from 13:2 UMass Law ReviewHere is the abstract.

Manifest disregard is a common law reason for not enforcing an arbitration award. This principle applies when the arbitrator knew and understood the law, but the arbitrator disregarded the applicable law. Presently, the United States Supreme Court has not made a definite decision on whether manifest disregard is still a valid reason for vacating the award (known as “vacatur”), and the Court is highly deferential to arbitrator decisions. Consequently, the lower courts are split on the issue. For international commercial arbitration awards, manifest disregard can only apply to a foreign award that is decided under United States law or in the United States. This Note will argue that manifest disregard should still apply to arbitration awards. However, arbitration contract clauses would be improved with the addition of language for appeals based upon manifest disregard to an arbitration appeals tribunal. The customary goal of arbitration is to provide a confidential, cost effective and expedited resolution of contract disputes. Therefore, an arbitration contract clause requiring that an appeals tribunal decide all manifest disregard questions would further these traditional arbitration goals.

Mr. Yates excelled in my 1L Torts class two years ago and also in Comparative Law (co-taught by the better regarded Dean Peltz-Steele).  I admit that my delay in reading this article is owed to my own shortcoming, as I suffer from commercial legis MEGO disorder.  I nevertheless recognize this article as well worth the, uh, investment, especially if commercial arbitration is your jam. Moreover, I am hopeful that Chad will get around to publishing some of the excellent research he's done on India in comparative law.  You can get a flavor of that work from his January entry on the UMass Law Review blog, "Comparative Law for India: The U.S. Digital Media Sales Company’s Destination for Business Process Outsourcing."  See also more on the blog.

A shout out of gratitude to Perry S. Granof, of Granof International Group, contributor of the chapter, "Introduction to Alternative Dispute Resolution in International Business Transactions," to the book, Resolving Insurance Claim Disputes Before Trial (ABA TIPS 2018).  The consummate colleague and an exceptional lawyer, Perry generously lectured my Comparative Law class via Zoom, on the subject of international arbitration, and fueled Chad's interest in the area.

Monday, February 11, 2019

Court's strike against Mass. wiretap law for recording police raises bigger questions of 'right to receive,' freedom of information

The "right to receive" expression or information is the long neglected, often doubted, and sometimes maligned sibling of the freedom of expression.  While the First Amendment posits the expression of information that one possesses, the right to receive posits the acquisition of information as an essential prerequisite.  In other words, without access to information, the freedom of expression is meaningless.

By Khairil Yusof (CC BY 2.0).
More broadly conceptualized, the right to receive is an umbrella that covers a great many propositions in civil rights discourse, especially the freedom of information or access to information (FOI or ATI), and including also the right to news-gathering and "citizen journalism"; the right of access to meetings, libraries, and public facilities such as prisons; and, most recently, the right to record police.  Historically, American constitutional law widely rejected propositions in this vein, evidenced by the famously statutory U.S. Freedom of Information Act, 5 U.S.C. § 552, which nonetheless has exerted substantial influence in the advent of ATI as a constitutional and human right elsewhere in the world.

Modern information society has raised new challenges to the American constitutional rejection of a right to receive information and prompted the reexamination of right-to-receive propositions in the courts.  A new appeal has arisen in the logic that access is prerequisite to meaningful democratic engagement through the freedoms to speak, publish, assemble, and petition.  A fair piece of this reexamination has appeared in the case law surrounding the video-recording of police activity, spurred in part by news-media focus on police-involved shootings and subsequent Black Lives Matter and related protests. 

Conventional First Amendment law would have subsumed video-recording under the doctrine of no right to gather the news, thus compelling would-be recorders to obey police orders to stop upon self-serving public-safety rationales, and on pain of civil and criminal justice consequences for failure to comply.  But as electronic media technology has dissolved the distance between recording and public broadcast—the latter unquestionably constitutionally protected by the speech-core prior restraint doctrine—even American courts have been reluctant to find recording devoid of constitutional significance.

In December 2018, the U.S. District Court for the District of Massachusetts held the Massachusetts wiretap statute, a "two-party consent" law (see code; Digital Media Law Project), unconstitutional--facially, though in the limited, articulated circumstances of "the secret recording of police officers performing their duties in public, and the secret recording of government officials doing the same." The court, per Chief Judge Patti B. Saris, held:

On the core constitutional issue, the Court holds that secret audio recording of government officials, including law enforcement officials, performing their duties in public is protected by the First Amendment, subject only to reasonable time, place, and manner restrictions. Because Section 99 [Mass. wiretap] fails intermediate scrutiny when applied to such conduct, it is unconstitutional in those circumstances.

James O'Keefe speaks at 2018 Student Action Summit, West Palm Beach,
Florida, Dec. 21, 2018. By Gage Skidmore (CC BY-SA 2.0).
The ruling came upon joint consideration of two cases involving different partisan affilliations.  In one case, Boston-based civil rights activists K. Eric Martin and René Perez, supported by the ACLU of Massachusetts, sued under civil rights law to combat authorities' investigation of them for openly and secretly recording police activity in pedestrian and traffic stops and at protests.  A second case involved the conservative activist James O'Keefe and his Project Veritas Action Fund (PVA).  PVA sought to effect secret recordings, and not to be criminally prosecuted for them, in Massachusetts in a broader and intriguing list of scenarios:

  • "landlords renting unsafe apartments to college students;
  • "government officials, including police officers, legislators, or members of the Massachusetts Office for Refugees and Immigrants, to ascertain their positions on 'sanctuary cities';
  • "'protest management' activities by both government officials and private individuals related to Antifa protests; and 
  • "interactions with Harvard University officials to research its endowment and use of federal funds."
As the court acknowledged, the First Circuit previously joined the majority trend in courts to recognize a constitutional right (subject to reasonable time-place-manner regulation) to record police in public.  Considering the extant threat of prosecution, the court found sufficient merit in plaintiffs' claims to survive ripeness review. 

C.J. Saris
The court then found that application of the law to recording public officials in their official capacity in public places could not survive First Amendment intermediate scrutiny: "narrowly tailored to serve a significant government interest."  Following the First Circuit's example, the court ruled that accountability outweighed slimmer competing interests in public order and officials' personal privacy.  The court left to future cases to determine whether the rule here may be extended to recordings in private venues that are places of public accommodation, such as a restaurant, and to determine who besides police are "government officials."

The case is Martin v. Gross, No. 1:16-cv-11362-PBS (D. Mass. Dec. 10, 2018), available here from Courthouse News Service.  Hat tip to Michael Lambert at Prince Lobel and Christine Corcos at Media Law Prof Blog.

As the courts continue to struggle with right-to-receive cases, rejection of the "right" in American constitutional law becomes increasingly untenable.  A generation of rehearings on the question in the U.S. Supreme Court, and a consequent reshaping of the relevant First Amendment doctrine, seems inevitable.

Friday, February 1, 2019

Federal court holds Syria liable to U.S. family for $300m in killing of journalist Marie Colvin

Syria owes more than $300m in wrongful death damages to the family of American journalist Marie Colvin, who was killed while working for the U.K. Sunday Times covering the siege of Homs in the Syrian civil war in 2012, the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia ruled January 30, per U.S. District Judge Amy Berman Jackson (e.g., N.Y. Times).

The Assad regime did not answer the lawsuit, and the court entered judgment by default.  The claim arose under the state-sponsored terrorism exception to the Foreign Sovereign Immunity Act (FSIA), 28 U.S.C. § 1605A.  The exception was amended into the FSIA in 2008 to strengthen an earlier 1996 exception after claims against Iran faltered in enforcement.  Section 1605A spells out the existence of a private cause of action in federal law, irrespective of the vagaries of state tort law.  The court found that the Colvin family presented sufficient evidence to prove that Marie Colvin's death was an "extrajudicial killing," beyond the shield of FSIA immunity.  The law also excepts torture, aircraft sabotage, and hostage taking from FSIA immunity.

The case is furthermore noteworthy because the court awarded damages to Colvin's sister upon a liability theory of intentional infliction of emotional distress.  Typically in state law, actions alleging emotional distress inflicted on a "bystander" by the killing of a loved one fail for the plaintiff's inability to prove intent as to the suffering of the bystander.  However, in the Colvin case, the court reasoned that the very purpose of a terrorist attack is to inflict emotional suffering on third parties.

The court awarded the family $11,836 in funerary expenses and $300m in punitive damages, and awarded Colvin's sister $2.5m in damages for emotional suffering ("solatium").  Photojournalist Paul Conroy, who worked with Colvin and survived the Homs attack, told the BBC that the ruling is not about money, which the family likely will never see, but is important to de-legitimize the Assad regime in the community of nations.

Colvin's story is the subject of Under the Wire, a 2018 documentary film by Chris Martin, available on iTunes (trailer below), and A Private War, a 2018 dramatic film by Matthew Heineman (IMDb), starring Rosamund Pike, due for DVD/Blu-ray release on Amazon in February.  The screenplay derived from Marie Brenner's coverage of Colvin's life and death for Vanity Fair.



The case is Colvin v. Syrian Arab Republic, No.

Teachable moment in Torts:
'Complaint alleges mom with dementia dumped outside Long Beach healthcare facility'

National media this week picked up this story from CBS Los Angeles about a woman suffering from dementia who wound up on the street after what looks like a botched transfer between a hospital and her residential facility.  The victim's daughter filed a complaint with regulatory authorities, but so far has said she will not file suit.  As advanced or two-semester classes in U.S. tort law wade into the deep end of the pool this spring, this story invites analysis on a number of fronts.  Here are some questions to get the discussion going.



1. Does the victim, through her daughter, have any cause of action in common law tort?  Can the injury requirement be met for the general negligence tort? for recklessness?

2. Is there a breach of duty here that can support a business tort?  Are there damages recoverable in business torts?

3. Could this be actionable "negligent infliction of emotional distress" (NIED)? in some states?  Can you demonstrate balance in the elements of negligence to persuade a court that NIED here will not open the floodgates?

4. How does the victim's dementia affect the torts case?  Is she an eggshell plaintiff?  Could she have been contributorily negligent?  Can she have been both at the same time?

5. Could the outcome of the regulatory investigation affect proof or liability in a tort case?

6. Does any tort theory rest in the daughter as plaintiff on her own behalf?  Is there any way to plaintiff-bystander liability?

7. Low temperatures in Los Angeles in the last week were only in the 50s (F), but northern cities have been in the grip of below-zero record lows.  Suppose the victim had been outside in Chicago and suffered frostbite.  How does that change the disposition of her tort claims? her daughter's?

8. Further entertaining the idea that the victim suffered physical injury, can the defendant make dispositive arguments on duty? on causation?  What's the difference?  Could there be a "scope of liability" problem in the terms of the Third Restatement?

9. There are two healthcare facilities involved.  Could both be defendants?  Would both be liable?  Would liability be joint or several? apportioned? to what effect?



🌠 Coming this June from Carolina Academic Press!
The Media Method:
Teaching Law with Popular Culture

Edited by LSU Law Prof. Christine A. Corcos, @LpcProf, Media Law Prof Blog
With contribution on torts by yours truly